Away in a Manger

WHO KNOWS?

Away in a Manger was written by...? On occasion, the authorship of an old hymn is unknown. But it is more unusual to find a song whose authorship is seemingly definite, only to have the “facts” of its origin completely rejected later. That is the case with the popular carol, “Away in a Manger.”

In 1887, hymn writer and music publisher James Ramsey Murray (1841-1905) produced a book of children’s music called Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses. “Away in a Manger” was included in the book, under this heading: “Luther’s Cradle Hymn, composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” Another author goes even further, saying the hymn “is thought to be written for his small son Hans (John), for a Christmas Eve festival, perhaps in 1530." It is a touching picture. But it never happened.

To accuse Mr. Murray of lying would be going too far. But wherever he got his information, he was certainly misinformed. Nothing in all of the reformer’s copious writings bears any resemblance to the carol.And the song Luther wrote for his five-year-old son Hans is “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” not “Away in a Manger.” In 1945, an American reference librarian named Richard S. Hill wrote a lengthy article called “Not So Far Away in a Manger.” After meticulous research, his conclusion was that the carol in question was likely written around 1883, by an anonymous Lutheran living in Pennsylvania. (Appropriately, 1883 was the four hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birth.)

The carol begins, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, / The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head. / The stars in the sky looked down where He lay, / The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.” It is a tender description of the birth of Jesus. His humble cradle was a manger because “there was no room for them in the inn” of Bethlehem (Lk. 2:7). Though many have attached a theological significance to this, comparing it to the unbeliever who has no room for the Saviour in his life, in the beginning it was a more practical matter.

A Roman census that year required citizens to return to the town of their family origin to register. For Mary and Joseph, that was Bethlehem (Lk. 2:1-5). Because she was heavily pregnant, and could possibly give birth at any time, their trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was no doubt slowed. They arrived to find the inn packed to capacity. Far from meanly turning them away, the harried inn keeper likely sought to provide the best shelter he could.

The original carol had only two stanzas. The last was written around 1905 by a Methodist clergyman named John Thomas MacFarland (1851-1913). He made a worthy addition to the song, providing children with the prayer: “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay / Close by me forever, and love me, I pray; / Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care, / And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.” This makes the hymn more than simply a verbal manger scene. It implies the continuing presence of a living Lord Jesus with a concern for little children–something we know was evident during His years of earthly ministry (Mk. 10:13-16).

Much remains a mystery with regard to today’s carol. And there are still unknowns concerning the birth of Christ as well. What we do know is that with this momentous event God the Son entered human history, incarnated by a miracle of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary (Lk. 1:31, 34-35). The infinite condescension involved in this is beyond imagining. But we know why He did it. He came “to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). His pathway led from the manger to the cross, where “Christ died for our sins” (I Cor. 15:3). That is the heart of the Christmas story.